Hiking the Colorado Hell’s Hole Trail


Yesterday, Ben and I decided to go for a hike. The Mount Evans Wilderness Area is a favorite of ours because it’s free, so close to Denver (just outside Idaho Springs), and dog friendly.

Unfortunately, our most normal dog (Peaches, the Rottweiler) is also the dog who gets carsick. Still, going hiking with a dog for the first time ever was incredibly awesome.

Our original plan was to do the Chicago Lakes trail, but we heard it’s a long trail and there’s a good chance there’s still snow on the trail. (Update: Our friends hiked the Chicago Lakes trail two days after we did our hike. They said they didn’t encounter any snow but the trail was very muddy.) So instead, we took the Hell’s Hole trail, because I thought it sounded good.

The trail wasn’t just good. It was awesome!

Getting there was easy. Exit 70 at 103 in Idaho Springs. Take 103 south and, before the first major switchback, turn right on West Chicago Creek Road. Follow this road for about 3 miles, until it ends. The road is unpaved and incredibly bumpy toward the top (rough but doable in a Honda Civic). You’ll pass the West Chicago Creek Campground on the left. Keep going — the trailhead is just past the campground and has its own parking lot and bathrooms. There were a few cars when we arrived at around 10 a.m. and plenty of room for more. The trailhead is clearly marked.

The hike starts out easy as it goes into a pine forest and then an aspen grove dotted with tiny yellow wildflowers at this time of year. It’s gorgeous! There are 3 stream crossings early in the hike — the first by way of some pretty skinny logs and the next two by way of log bridges. After this comes the hardest part of the hike. I’d say it’s roughly a mile of pretty steep uphill. It’s pretty rocky. Eventually, the aspens start to give way to pine trees. Past the aspens, there’s a section where the trail gets very rocky, but the whole trail isn’t rocky (some internet accounts say that after the first mile, the trail gets rockier and more level — it does get more level but, aside from the rocky patch, the trail actually gets much less rocky as you get to the top).

At about 1:20 into the hike and after a good uphill (I’m giving times because I don’t know how far this was), we hit a ridge or crest where the view is incredible — we had an unobstructed views of distant mountains. On the way up and the way back we encountered people sitting here enjoying a meal.

The other enjoyable thing about this ridge is that the hard part of the hike is over. There are a few more uphill portions after this, but it’s much less of an incline than the lower portion of the trail. It’s also less rocky and there were a few good stretches of my favorite kind of trail — pine-needle-covered dirt. The trail goes into a valley, which is beautiful and a nice change from the forest below. It was actually kind of weird, too — I’m not used to mountain hikes where you end in a valley.

Hell’s Hole itself is quite expansive. There’s what I guess could be considered a pond, although it was mostly mud with just a little water. Just past that is what I refer to as the “alien tree.” We sat kind of between the pond and the alien tree, by a log on the ground, to have lunch and lots and lots of water. I was feeling a little wonky by the time we got to the end of the trail (apparently Ben was, too, but he didn’t tell me that until later). I got lightheaded, I think from not drinking nearly enough water on the way up (well, and the elevation of 11,540 feet). Don’t do that! Drink lots of water and remember that this trail is sparsely used so that, um, if you have to pee somewhere, you totally can. Feeling a little lightheaded tends to make me a little panicky, and this occasion was no different. Ben’s theory is that the Hell’s Hole area is a little disconcerting because it’s kind of on a weird slant, so this might have contributed to my wonkiness, as well. It’s an absolutely gorgeous area but I’d agree that it’s kind of disconcerting. It’s weird to end an upward hike in, well, a big open hole-like area, where you’re looking up at a mountain. The landscape is dotted with alien trees, which are actually bristlecone pines (I didn’t know about these until after the hike). They’re incredibly eerie and, as I learned from the internet, can be 1,000+ years old. That’s crazy!

I think it’s safe to call this hike 8 miles round trip (the internet refers to it as 7 miles, 8.6 miles, and 9.3 miles — people who did the hike using GPS seem to agree on something close to 8 miles) with about a 2,000 foot elevation gain. It took us 2:05 to get to the top and 2:02 to get back down. Normal people probably take more time going up than down — I’m very slow and cautious on the way down because I’m a little clumsy and don’t want to fall. I did this hike using poles like you’d use for snowshoeing. Ben didn’t use anything. We saw people using nothing, one pole, a walking stick, or two poles. I’m a dork but I couldn’t imagine doing this hike, especially on the way down where it’s all rocky and slide-y, without poles.

I’d say the trail was less-than-moderately used. We encountered maybe 20 people, tops. It was just the right amount of human contact to have on a hike — every once in a while, we saw one, two, or a few friendly people, most of them with dogs. There were two guys at the end of the trail when we arrived. They left shortly after that and while we were eating, one other guy came through.

The trail was easy to follow. There was one spot where it wasn’t clear which way to go, but somebody stacked a bunch of rocks indicating that we should go left. On July 1 when the Denver high temperature was 85, the weather was awesome — we brought sweatshirts but didn’t use them. There was a little mud toward the end of the trail but no snow.

As with all Colorado mountain hikes, you’re better off to go as early in the day as possible. We were on the later end of things hitting the trail at 10:15 a.m. — most of the people we encountered were on the way down by then. In the early afternoon, clouds started to roll in but thankfully, we didn’t get any rain. Although I tried to do a good job applying sunscreen, I got a killer sunburn on places I missed, including the top of my head and the backs of my calves.

Last thing — if you have a dog who is in reasonably good shape, bring him or her on this hike! Peaches did awesome and seemed to have a great time, and she’d never been hiking before.

For more on the Hell’s Hole trail, check out:

I didn’t take a ton of pictures, because I was more focused on hiking than photographing, but here’s what I do have (you can see the whole set here). Ben took some of the ones at the end of the trail while I sat around feeling wobbly for a few minutes. Even with the wobbliness, I highly recommend this trail.

Hell's Hole mosaic